Perhaps one of the most traumatic events ever to occur in a person's life is to wake up in the morning and discover someone you deeply care for -- your spouse, significant other, a close family member or friend -- has suddenly died during the night. If someone is in the hospital, a nursing home, or under hospice care, the shock of an unexpected death is significantly lessened, but not when a person appears to be okay only to die during the night. These are called "unattended deaths" and involve a number of things happening all at once that are not expected.
Since there are always a number of these unattended deaths each year, let me share with you some of the things you might experience so that you might be better prepared if you happen to be involved.
First, because of the severe grief involved, you will probably want to call someone close to you immediately so that you may have some support. However, shortly after that, or perhaps first, you will need to call EMS (Emergency Medical Service). Since EMS is dispatched through the same office as law enforcement, both will respond immediately. Usually, law enforcement arrives first and will quickly take charge of the situation. If there is any indication the person is still alive, they will start CPR until the medical staff arrives and then turn over the effort to those trained in life support. The medical staff will determine whether the person is still alive or deceased. They will then back off and begin to look for the cause of death.
At this point, there are going to be a lot of people present with each assigned to a specific job, but it will appear confusing to you. If you are a religious person or just need spiritual support, this is an excellent time to ask the law enforcement personnel present to call for a chaplain. Almost all of the Police Departments and the Sheriff's Office have chaplains on call who are willing to come at a moment's notice to assist you. In addition to providing spiritual and emotional support, they may serve as a liaison with the professional people present and help you understand what is going on. They also may help you get in touch with your pastor or church, if that is your desire.
Once the medical people have determined that the person is deceased, it is necessary by law to contact the County Coroner. It actually is his or her job to investigate the death to determine both the cause of the death and if there is anything unusual about it. This means he or she will collect all of the medicines used by the deceased and ask a lot of questions involving the person.
Please don't be offended by this inquiry; he or she is only doing his job and, usually, you want to know the cause of death, too. If the coroner makes the determination that nothing was unusual about the death, he or she will release the deceased to you. If there is a question about how the person died that might suggest something unusual, the coroner may order an autopsy and take the deceased with him. This is not unusual and will provide a more definitive reason for the death. Please know that the coroner also will take all of the deceased's medications with him. This is according to the law.
If the coroner does not order an autopsy, you may still want to know the cause of the death and order an autopsy yourself. However, you should be aware of the fact that if the coroner orders an autopsy, there is no charge to you; but if you order the autopsy, you will be required to pay for it. This may be important since autopsies are expensive.
When the coroner is finished, you will be asked to notify a funeral home so that they may come and take care of the deceased. Reputable law enforcement officers, medical staff and coroners probably will not suggest a "particular" funeral home but they may mention several. You must make the decision about which one you wish to come. When the funeral home personnel arrive, they will provide you with guidelines regarding the future and normally suggest you meet with them at the funeral home within 24 hours. They may provide you with a wealth of information about finances, burial, cremation, funeral services, etc.
In closing, let me say a word about the people involved. The law enforcement personnel are present to secure the area and make sure everyone is safe. The medical personnel are there to take care of the deceased and make sure he or she is dead. The coroner is there to investigate the death and to make sure everything is okay. The chaplain is present to provide spiritual and emotional support and to be a liaison between you and the others involved. The funeral director is present to help you with the deceased's needs and to guide you in making future decisions.
It is my sincere hope that you never have to experience an unattended death, but if you do, perhaps the above information will be helpful. God bless.
-- Robert Box is the former chaplain for the Bella Vista Police Department and is currently the Fire Department chaplain. Opinions expressed are those of the author.Religion on 02/05/2020
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